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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

a note on academia « Previous | |Next »
July 21, 2003

In the light of this post at on the contemporary relevance of the classics, this interview in the Sydney Morning Herald about life in the humanities' coal face in Australian universities is interesting. The interview is conducted by John Wojdylo with Albert Brian Bosworth, a Professor of Classics and Ancient History, University of Western Australia, and a world expert in his field. It is about the future of classics (and by implication the humanities) in Australia. Brian describes the negative side of the economic restructuring of the universities.

There needs to be more of this being said in the public sphere to counter the spin of the Vice-Chancellors and Ministers.

Several points are made by Brian in the interview:

1. university library funds all over Australia are being starved to the point where the University of Western Australia (a sandstone university) no longer has a basic research library. There goes scholarship.

2. resources are inadequate for undergraduate teaching. Teaching loads keep on increasing. More stressed out academics in teaching only regional universities.

3. though the senior faculty have done okay from ARC research funding, the classics department has become a 'disciplinary group' because of small staff numbers. The upshot? It is facing extinction.

4. the academic labor situation indicates the negative impact of casual employment on young scholars working in the humanities. 3 year research positions at the postdoctoral level are very hard to achieve and they are strictly limited in time. Even 5 year senior research fellowships provide no security. At a lower level talented scholars have to exist on short term contracts and causal employment which can take them into their forties. At that point it is very hard for them to retrain and change careers. Upshot? Unemployment.

5. there is an over-production of PhD's for which there are no jobs and so the graduate students are forced to leave the academy after struggling to get their foot in the door for several futile years. (For the US experience on this see this post by Invisible Adjunct.) Upshot? More unemployment.

I've interpreted the points a bit by reading between the lines in the context of the work done by Invisible Adjunct on the fate of the history discipline in the US.

My judgement? It is pretty clear that the future of the classics "department" is downhill. In the absence of substantive private endowment (not realistic in Australia) the classics "department" has no future. As the senior faculty retire they will not be replaced by bright young academics.

Philosophy is in a similar situation to classics.

Why? Why the devastation? Why is a whole generation being lost? Why all the wasted lives?

The most immediate cause is the current shift from the Menzies-style liberal university serving the national interest to a business corporation in knowledge economy. Tim Dunlop has comments on this with good comments by others. As this shift speeds up, the humanities fail to generate the cash flow they need to survive. They are not money earners because they do not attract lots of students, dues to a humanities degree do not offering good career prospects. So the humanities are seen as marginal, a distraction, or an ornamentation.

Hence they are cut back again and again and again until there is nothing to cut back. The devastation all seems so rational in an economic sense. It is a matter of shifting resources to where there is most demand.

In his own longer post John Wojdylo calls a spade a spade in place of all the fog that hides the devastation. He rightly talks in terms of an intellectual catastrophe in Australian universities and the decimation perpetrated at ground level in philosophy, history, classics and music, where Australia has lost world leaders in these fields, and is in serious risk of losing most of the rest. He describes the way the devastation explained away as a necessary step in the path towards future salvation through the market; and the failure to publicly fund the humanities, the pure or basic sciences and mathematics in the name of the public good.

The transformation of the university into a business corporation is a result of the neo-liberal cultural revolution. John describes this as requiring the private sector and universities to be both educated to view things differently and to change their practices; with the universities required to move closer to industry to ensure the closer interaction between the private sector and universities. Despite the failure failure of the private sector to invest in research in the universities John argues that the cultural revolution aims to permanently entrench neoliberal ways of thinking and values into everyday university life so that the liberal university becomes little more than a corporation selling a product in the global maket place.

If we step back to the broader public policy picture we can see that the current funding crisis of the universities has been engineered by the state. The neo-liberal state has engineered this crisis as a way to create pressure to shift to a full market model as the only rational solution.

John is dead right. The future of higher education in Australia is one of ever more deregulation and user pays, with an increasing shift to full fees in some courses in prestige universities to recoup the big cuts in public funding. As the American free market model is being imposed through a wearing down of resistance the more prestigious univerisites are using their market position to grab the cash.

Spare a thought for the personal cost of this pathway to unemployment and career change. So why do people keep doing PhD's in the Humanities when there are no jobs and they face the situation of overeducated unemployability? As Amanda over at Household Opera puts it, we have a very strange sort of denial going on. (link via Rana at Frogs and Ravens). Amanda describes this position as:

"...well, there are no jobs, you're going to be poor and anxious and overworked, and you'll have very little choice in where you end up living -- but the immaterial rewards of a life of devotion to learning make it all worthwhile!"

Like Amanda I find this scholarship/moral education stuff depressing given the grim reality of poverty and underemployment. The ship is going down in the stormy seas and the passengers are singing happy tunes about poverty and the lifelong benefits of a humanities education!

Is it a case of
"unwarranted happy thoughts only serve to lighten the emotional load as they make their merry way down the path to academic proletarianization"?, as Invisible Adjunct puts it.

I also find it very disconcerting that senior academics, such as Brian Bosworth, continue encourage humanities students to do PhD's, when they know that the graduate students will go into debt and not get a full time job in academe. I find that irresponsible. It is not just a case of pointing the finger at the neo-liberal policy makers. Many of the senior faculty have been irresponsible in their ethical responsibilities of care for their students and adjuncts.

By doing so they have expressed the hollowing out of the ethical values of the humanities. The humanities are a shell of their former self, as it is no longer the case that a humanities education makes you a more ethical person.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:07 PM | | Comments (3) | TrackBacks (1)

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You've done a nice job laying out a depressing situation. I'm particularly taken with the last two paragraphs, about the place of ethics in the liberal arts. One reason I've enjoyed teaching at two different religiously affiliated colleges is that they are not only forgiving of teachers who discuss ethics in the classroom, they expect and encourage it. It's a pity that the big universities seem only about "what's this going to get me?"

I gave up on my thesis (i could still write it but its unlikely at the moment) because i realised my best employment option was to get in a vocational course before all unis introduced non-HECS places for the one i was interested in (library/info studies).

While i appreciate the education i got, i still sometimes have reservations about not having undertaken a degree in physio.

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